The “1” in the title of this post is to egg me on to follow it with more notes on details and themes in plays of Euripides.[1]

The Nurse opens the play.

Εἴθ’ ὤφελ’ Ἀργοῦς μὴ διαπτάσθαι σκάφος
Κόλχων ἐς αἶαν κυανέας Συμπληγάδας…

Eith’ ōphel’ Argous mē diaptasthai skaphos
Kolkhōn es aian kuaneas Sumplēgadas…

If only the hull of the Argo had not flown through
the dark-blue Clashers to the land of the Colchians…

Alone of the 44 substantially complete plays we have by (or attributed to) Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, this one opens with a wish that its story had never begun. The Nurse looks back to the voyage of the Argo, and even before that to the felling of the pines that yielded the oars for the heroes to ply. She would have them still standing; she would undo the whole epic. The reason is the faithlessness of Jason, and the suffering this is causing her mistress and the whole household. Of course, as to what Medea may do the Nurse has only vague fears.

We recall the words of Theognis (perhaps quoted from an earlier source):

Πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον…
φύντα δ᾽ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀίδαο περῆσαι.

Best of all for those on the earth is not to have been born…
And born, to pass as quickly as possible through the gates of Hades.

That is, we should wish to undo the birth that put us here. In Medea’s first utterance she wishes that she might die: πῶς ἂν ὀλοίμαν; she asks, “How might I die?” which is to say, “I wish I could die” (96). She will return her children to non-life and undo Jason’s new marriage, from which he expected more offspring. All bonds will come apart; as Homer says, death is a loosening, one’s “limbs are loosed” in death (the verb is luō).

What are the Clashers? The Symplegades, rocks or islands that strike (plēg-) together (sum or sym) so as to crush what ventures between. They stand at the Bosporus, the strait way into the sea on whose coast dwell the Colchians, among them Medea. We first hear of something like them from her aunt Circe in the Odyssey, as the Planktai, the Wandering Crags, which not even birds can pass (12.59ff). In Pindar’s account, rather than wandering the crags “run together” more swiftly than the winds, menacing the Argo (Pythians 4.208–210). Euripides seems to put together Homer’s birds—“flown through”—with Pindar’s clashing. The ship’s wings are its oars.

One naturally feels that for rocks to move is contrary to nature. So too must have seemed the first sea-voyage, that “made Neptune wonder at the shadow of the Argo” (“fé Nettuno ammirar l’ombra d’Argo,” Paradiso 33.96). And in Medea many things go contrariwise: rivers run uphill, sing the Chorus, oaths have lost their fixity, women will gain respect (410ff). Natural bonds give way: Medea has killed her brother, has induced the daughters of Pelias to kill him, and will kill her own children. All this the Nurse expresses in lamenting that “everything is hateful and what is dearest is diseased” (ἐχθρὰ πάντα καὶ νοσεῖ τὰ φίλτατα, 16) when a wife “stands apart from” (διχοστατῆι, 15) her husband. The phrase is reminiscent of the opposition of Achilles and Agamemnon, who “stand apart” at the beginning of the Iliad (διαστήτην, 1.6)—where mighty Achilles is matched against the weak man in authority, like Medea against Jason, not to mention Creon. Perhaps it also suggests the clashing rocks, whose standing apart invites sailors to destruction. “’Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes / Between the pass and fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites” (Hamlet 5.2.60–62).

When the Nurse wishes that the Argo had not flown through the Clashers, we may understand not only that the voyage ought to have been crushed in the egg, but also that when the ship dared the strait, it should have been destroyed. Indeed, why did she choose to identify it by synecdoche as skaphos, “the hull of the Argo”? The word is from skaptō, “dig”—we might compare our “dugout,” and “hull” shares a root with “hole” and “hollow.” The hull is the essential part of a boat, the hollow floating shell; as such, it appears fragile, subject to crushing. So the ship is skaphos to suggest its vulnerability to the Clashers. More particularly, the Argo is like that eminently crushable thing which contains, or by extension is, the child of a bird, the creature which Homer’s Wanderers threaten and the flying vessel imitates. “You egg!” the murderer calls Macduff’s boy, one of his “pretty chickens” (Macbeth 4.2.82, 4.3.218). Thus the opening line is pregnant with the death of children.

Further, the hollowness of the hull suggests what Medea complains of, the emptiness of oaths, of marriage vows, which will bring about the undoing of all familial relationships. To be sure, the Argo was full enough, like a giant egg, freighted with the heroes summoned by Jason (Pythians 4.169ff), overgrown boys out for adventure. In his selfish eagerness for gain Jason will exhibit their worst qualities. Medea’s womb too was a vessel, that bore the children he planted there. The Argo eluded the smiters, plēgades, but Medea was smitten, ekplageisa (8), with love for Jason; he escaped, his children will be crushed. Yet he alone of the heroes, after being “destroyed” (1326) by Medea, will die a death hardly different from the one he had fled. Avoiding instant extinction, his ship flew between the rocks, but on the other side began the dissolution of all bonds; at last that undoes the craft itself, by a piece of which he is smitten, peplēgmenos, on that egg-like cradle of faithless schemes, his head (1386–7).

At the end of the play Medea carries off the bodies of her children in her flying chariot. After sacrifices more painful than the fallen pines, the winged Argo has a successor, and a mighty woman stands in the place of heroes, as the Chorus foresaw. Wiser now than the Nurse, Jason can do no more than echo her opening wish.

By the way, “egg” (ᾠόν, ōon) is not a word the tragic poets use, but an Athenian in Aristophanes is ready to approach an attractive “chick” as he would an egg, first removing the shell, or mask, from her head (Birds 667ff).


[1] I am grateful to several students with whom I have had the pleasure of studying Euripides: Emily Grazier, Clifton Mobbs, Kali Munro, Maxwell Silbiger, Allanah Steen, Jiayue Zhu.